June 1, 2022 – the White Pass & Yukon Railway – Skagway, Alaska, USA
I have a leisurely breakfast in the main dining room this morning: vegetable scramble (eggs) with a cappuccino. There is no rush, since my excursion doesn’t leave until 12:10PM. I have lots of time to wander around Skagway, which looks a lot like Dawson City, since the storefronts are all historic looking, but mostly modern buildings inside. The first few blocks of State Street (the main street) has all the tourist shops and services, but walk further up the street a few blocks, or divert a block or two either side, and the real town reveals itself. Dominating the town are the deep sea docks for cruise ships, which once were also used for ore loading, and the multiple railway tracks of the White Pass and Yukon railway, which run from the docks along the eastern side of town.
I tick off a long-standing bucket list item today: riding on the White Pass and Yukon railway from Skagway to the White Pass Summit. The breathtaking scenery is a counterpoint to realizing the Klondike gold miners had to struggle up this steep mountain pass mainly on foot. When they got to the top, they had to go back down and up multiple times to haul their one ton stake to the summit before the North West Mounted Police would let them into Canada to seek their fortune in Dawson City, some 500 miles further! I think the excursion description is a great summary of my experience:
“Experience an unforgettable journey along the eastern side of White Pass aboard the world-famous narrow-gauge White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad, built more than 100 years ago. You’ll pass through some of the North’s most rugged terrain on board a comfortable rail car as you retrace the original route through breathtaking scenery to the summit of White Pass at 2,865 feet. Relax on the 40-mile roundtrip journey along steep grades and cliff-hanging turns as your train agent shares stories from the past.
Back in Skagway, board a motor coach and travel the historic streets of downtown Skagway, part of the Klondike National Historical Park. Visit The Lookout, a photographer’s delight offering a panoramic view of the Skagway Valley, glacier-clad mountains, Lynn Canal and your cruise ship.
Stop at historic Liarsville, a gold rush trail camp nestled beside a waterfall at the foot of White Pass. Liarsville is named for the journalists sent here to report on the Klondike Gold Rush, whose articles included tall tales of the prospectors’ exploits. Browse the authentic camp exhibits, including antiques and garments left behind by the prospectors and those who profited from them. A cast of ‘sourdoughs’ and dance hall girls will entertain you with a hilarious melodrama and a poem by Robert Service, the Bard of the North.
You’ll also have a chance to try your hand at the art of gold panning in the Liarsville gold fields, where you are guaranteed to find some gold to keep. Enjoy a snack, shop for souvenirs or have your photo taken with a dance hall girl.”
Would-be gold miners had a choice of two routes: the shorter but steeper Chilkoot Trail, or the White Pass trail, which promised a less steep but longer route. Both were punishing routes which lead to the interior lake region where the stampeders could begin their 550 mile journey to the promised gold to be found in the creeks and rivers of Dawson City. The White Pass and Yukon railway was built a few years later by an Irish-Canadian named “Big” Mike Henry, who built the 110 mile route over just 26 months for $15 million. He is quoted “give me enough dynamite, and snoose, and I’ll build you a railroad to hell.”
In 1982 world metal prices plummeted, so the ore from the mines the railway transported to ships dried up. The railway suspended operations until 1988, when they reinvented themselves as a narrow guage tourist excursion train between Skagway and the White Pass Summit. The active line was later extended to Bennett Lake (1990s) and Carcross, Yukon (2007). Due to pandemic border restrictions, currently only trips to White Pass Summit are offered.
After returning to the ship, I have dinner in the main dining room with a couple from south Texas. I start with corn and crabmeat fritters, panko-crusted hake for the main course, and strawberry pavlova for dessert. The hake is really nice – a new fish for me. I see the Belt of Venus and the Earth’s shadow in front of us after sunset, as the ship makes its way slowly south down the Lynn Canal to tomorrow’s port of call, Juneau.